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  • Writer's pictureNandan Gautam

Can you compose without playing an instrument?

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

When I was fourteen years old I quit learning the mridangam, a Indian percussion instrument that I had been learning for the last 1-2 years with an amazing teacher. Today when I look back upon that decision, perhaps I should have stuck with it. I might have achieved some sort of proficiency with a musical instrument, which I obviously lack today..

But what's more interesting is why I decided to quit. I quit not because it was hard work (it was) but because I had no love for Carnatic Music - the classical music of India that has it's roots in the south of India as opposed to the north which we usually associate with Indian Classical Music.

The rhythms were subtle and nuanced with much to learn but each time I heard a live performance, it stirred nothing in me. Why one form of music resonates with oneself and not another is a discussion for another time but at the point it felt like I was breaking up with a girl that I had not even an iota of feelings for. It was easy.

The harder part came when I tried to learn the guitar... When the fingers would refuse to move and the brain was unable to coordinate the right and the left hand with any sort of skill (they still refuse to). This was like being rejected by the only woman you ever loved. I tried to learn the piano next but once again, the right and the left hand refused to do different things at the same time. As long I was playing Row Row Row your boat, the hands were capable but the moment I tried to go to the next stage, they were simply lost.

I am an impatient man, and have been ever since I can remember. I wanted to play real music and make real music. Immediately. But I was so far away from that.. it was depressing. So I immersed myself into listening. All I did was listen. To Steely Dan. To John Abercrombie. To Pat Metheny. To Lyle Mays. To Joni Mitchell. To Weather Report. To Ralph Towner. To Allan Holdsworth. To Eberhard Weber. To Sting. To A. R. Rahman. To Shankar Ehsaan Loy. To Keith Jarrett. And now, twenty-five years I am thankful I couldn't play.

There's no point in trying to be good at what you were never meant to be good at. When one door closes another is always open... usually the one you can't see at that moment. Look for it and find it. God could be giving you a short cut.

Or making sure you listen to enough great music before you attempt to actually make your own (which is what happened to me). Or making sure your standards were so high that it would take you lifetimes to get there.

That's what makes it perfect.

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